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Kovacevic: It doesn't have to be this hard

| Monday, May 20, 2013, 12:29 a.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Senators' Sergei Gonchar checks the Penguins' James Neal during the first period Sunday, May 19, 2013, at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa.

OTTAWA — Even at the end, it's hard. After the two-month run, after all the bumps, bruises and butt-ends to the sternum, they wheel the Stanley Cup out, hand it to the captain and … the thing weighs 35 pounds.

Nothing comes easy.

Not for a fleeting minute.

Well, consider these Penguins painfully reminded.

Consider them put back in their place by this 2-1 double-overtime loss to the Senators on Sunday, one that allowed Ottawa to make this a whole new second-round series at 2-1.

“You don't like to lose a game like that,” Tomas Vokoun was saying in the visitors' room, probably a few pounds lighter after 46 saves. “It's tough, for sure.”

Yeah, consider them served.

Because all it took was one fleeting failure of a minute in an otherwise exemplary effort to turn what should have been a shutout for Vokoun into … well, I know you stayed up until 11:37 p.m. and watched for yourself: Andre Benoit's flick from the right dot, the rebound of Vokoun's 46th save sitting at the lip of the crease, and Colin Greening stabbing it home.

One minute.

And it wasn't that minute.

Rather, it was the final minute of regulation in which a team that had been so smart and steady suddenly went fantastically stupid and sloppy.

I'm sure you saw this one, too, but it still defies belief.

A minute showed on the clock, and the Penguins had a power play for the duration. Should have been easy pickings: Fortify the points with defensemen to be safe, replace any forward lacking a defensive mindset, set up in the attacking zone and don't take any bad-angle shots that can carom back to your zone.

It's not even Hockey 101.

It's the preschool edition.

“A power play late there, we can't give up a goal,” Sidney Crosby was saying. “We know that.”

So did Dan Bylsma, and he did take care of the points, sending out Kris Letang and Paul Martin. But the other players were Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz.

Why?

Crosby and Kunitz I get, but why Malkin with his overwhelming history of turnovers and lapses?

“We had two defensemen on the ice, and we were thinking about halfway through a change with the forward line,” Bylsma said, citing Crosby changing on the fly for checking center Brandon Sutter. “They had their goalie pulled, so it was five skaters apiece. It's a situation where they were able to make a play that created a big gap in our group.”

A gap?

More like the Rideau Canal.

Bylsma called his choice of players “a possession power play,” which sounded like semantics for hoping that all his skilled players could maintain control in the offensive zone for the duration.

But really, not to absolve, none of this should have mattered. We're still talking about a short-handed goal to blow a lead in the final minute of a potentially pivotal playoff game.

Rewind it, and it only gets worse.

Daniel Alfredsson, with all 40 years of tread on his tires, wheeled out of the Ottawa zone. Kunitz was on the forecheck and allowed Alfredsson to skate right by. No pressure beyond a one-handed twirl of the stick in the skater's direction.

And once Alfredsson got past Kunitz, he actually rose up into a near-upright stance, as if this were some blown practice drill.

Watch the DVR for yourself. You won't believe it.

Anyway, Alfredsson continued to the Penguins' line after neatly dishing to his left, but the visitors were back in numbers other than Kunitz. Should have been covered. Easily.

But two passes clicked and Alfredsson, still skating wholly unabated, astoundingly coasted right into the low slot to deflect Milan Michalek's saucer pass behind Vokoun with 29 seconds remaining.

A backpedaling Malkin picked up no one.

Letang, who's specifically instructed to take something of a free safety role in that setting and pick up anyone in the slot, inexplicably kept backpedaling to the point he might as well have kept going into the end boards.

Matt Cooke, who wasn't on the ice but maybe should have been given his superlative two-way play in these playoffs, told it like it is.

“We had one more guy on the ice,” Cooke said. “It shouldn't have been that awkward.”

No, it shouldn't have.

Good for Cooke.

But that doesn't change the outcome and the principal question: How does that happen?

How do all these intelligent, determined individuals allow that?

Look, no one should expect perfection, but these Penguins aren't collectively cramping in the brain for the first time this postseason. They all knew what was on the line. Bylsma knew what was on the line.

“It's an important lesson,” Cooke said, again speaking truth.

Sure, but it's more than that. It's given new life to an opponent and a goaltender that had been all but vanquished.

It's made it hard.

Harder than necessary.

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